Tunisian Islamist Leader Returns From Exile, Says He Supports `Freedom'

The leader of Tunisia’s Islamist movement Ennahda, banned under ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, returned to his homeland after a 22-year exile in London.

The arrival of Rachid Ghannouchi yesterday fanned a debate between his supporters and other groups that helped overthrow Ben Ali, who are concerned that Ennahda will seek to weaken the secular system enforced since the North African nation’s independence from France in 1956.

“We are not terrorists, and we are against terror like everybody else,” Ghannouchi told supporters at Tunis airport. “We oppose Bin Laden. We are for freedom.”

“The Jan. 14 revolution is for all the Tunisians, without exception,” read one of the banners held by Ennahda supporters who had gathered at the airport to greet Ghannouchi, demanding full participation by the party in the country’s political life.

Facing the dozens of supporters awaiting Ghannouchi, stood a group of young people opposed to what they described as the politicization of Islam. “No to Shari’ah,” they chanted, holding a banner reading “Islam is too noble to be dragged into politics.”

Ghannouchi, 69, gave assurances of Ennahada’s respect for democracy and women’s rights in an interview with the Financial Times on Jan. 18, four days after Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, bowing to street protests that ended his 23-year rule.

‘Build Tunisia’

“The government used to always say, to frighten people away, that (the Islamists) will take away the rights of women,” he told the Financial Times. “We all recognize, we accept the personal status code and will not cancel it or refuse it.”

Ghannouchi says his ideals are similar to those of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party.

“I heard nobody say he is against democracy, market economy or the rights gained by women in Tunisia,” said Mohamed Habib Ben Saad, chief executive officer of Banque de Tunisie, in an interview today in Tunis. He spoke in response to a question on whether he believes Islamists pose a threat to market economy or the transition to democracy.

At the airport, Ghannouchi said: “We all have our opinions. We are here to build Tunisia. We are hopeful that God will help us, and that Egypt will follow Tunisia.”

Acting Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, who is not related to Rachid Ghannouchi, is leading the interim administration tasked with preparing the nation for its first ever free and fair elections. He has said that voting may occur within six months.

Other exiles have also returned to Tunisia. Moncef Marzouki, a human rights activist and the founder of Congress for the Republic, arrived in Tunis on Jan. 18 from Paris, pledging to run for the presidency.

To contact the reporter on this story: Maher Chmaytelli in Tunis at mchmaytelli@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net.

Press spacebar to pause and continue. Press esc to stop.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.